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Children’s book illustrator Nick Harris grew up in a small coastal town in Southern England knowing he wanted to be a doctor but after some time studying sciences he realized that his career choice was “way off the mark” and he decided, to our delight, to pursue his favorite hobby, drawing. With no specific job in mind he enrolled in a three year program studying illustration where he met his wife Katy and an agent that guided him and encouraged him and remains his close friend and colleague until today. Nick‘s studies allowed his favorite hobby to become his passion and he has been a successful illustrator since 1982. This experienced artist shares his wisdom and offers some valuable advice for any aspiring artist.
IT’S ART: Do you think your style has evolved a lot since your first illustrations?
Nick Harris: As a kid I felt compelled to try and fettle every square centimeter of a piece to be as finished as it could be. Tonal areas of pencil work had to be showing no lines unless I specifically wanted them there. Had the drawing underneath been better maybe that would have been justified. The results tended to be rather stiff and lifeless. Art college freed up my thinking a lot. I still like the same kind of things and admire a lot of the same styles of art as I did when I was that kid but I'm maybe more flexible about how I approach a piece. Lack of time and patience has had an impact on the imagery I’ve produced over the years too.
IA: To describe your style I imagined Norman Rockwell at the Pre-Raphaelite era. What do you think of such an assertion?
NH: I think you're being very kind Patrice. Norman Rockwell was and still is one of my illustrator gods. I might not feel the resonance of the social history in his paintings, not having grown up in the US through that period of his peak output, but his earlier work in particular is so good it makes me want to lick it. He could draw and paint the hind legs off a donkey. The deliberate caricaturing that typifies many of his pieces introduces such humanity and life. Yes, the content seems old fashioned and corny now but they are masterfully done. The Pre-Raphaelites are another constant source of inspiration for their vibrant, almost super realist offerings. If like me, you've ever stood awed in front of an original John Everret Millais painting with your jaw hanging open then you know what I mean. I would love to have that sort of talent and discipline because that's what it takes to achieve these levels of finish in your art. I don't have either. I do still try though.
IA: Your artworks Star Quest and Dragon Quest are full of details. How do you start your work on such an illustration? Are there some Nick Harris rules, steps, philosophy…?
NH: 'Work BIG to SMALL.' By that I mean go for the bigger shapes and broad composition first. It won't matter how good the small details are if the big stuff doesn't work. Then work on the medium sized stuff and so on down. You shouldn't be polishing the buckles of the lesser characters until the end, no matter how tempting it is (and yes I still do it, damn-it). Chances are that if you do you'll probably have to go over them again anyway to make them fit in better at the end. It's an organizational thing with pieces as complicated as these were. I still had a lot more patience when I did these. Even so they drove me bonkers. They were fun to do but really time consuming. And do bear in mind that these are real media watercolors I'm talking about, on real art board. Digital art has the advantage of more flexibility. But I do still tend to organize my working methods around similar ideas. Old dog - old tricks.
NH: Money and commerce is what drives my job as a book illustrator, and deadlines are vital. However, it's still better to go the extra mile to try and deliver quality rather than quantity. If pleading for an extra couple of days will make all the difference in the quality of an image then plead and show them the difference. It benefits the product as well as yourself in the end. Once a piece of your work is out there in print it's there for all to see and it’s an advertisement of your ability. That's true whether the image is one of your best or one you'd rather hide away. Deliver the best you can. Quality work tends to survive the test of time better.
I'm never happy with a piece when I hand it over. There's always something I could have done better or different. Give it a while before you look at the thing again, after you've let it go. Its funny how a bit of time can give you better perspective on seeing how you actually did.
IA: You've done many illustrations for children books. In what ways do you think it's a different challenge? Do you try to imagine what children can feel when seeing your work?
NH: My natural style has dropped me firmly in the children’s book playpen. It just happens to be that the way I think, draw and paint suits that particular genre. For me, making a piece of art is more than about producing something that's visually appealing to look at. Most of what I turn out isn't what your average-Joe public would want to hang on their walls, unless they have an interest in collecting illustration or a psychiatric problem. It has to have content that makes you want to know more. The pieces I like most are about storytelling.
Stories for children up to about 14 years old can tend to have more obvious visual clues you can use, they can be more fun and can offer more scope for distorting reality. The closest adult equivalent these days are the graphic novels, I suppose; which usually contain sexual and violent references that are a bit ahead of where the unsullied child mind would ideally be. That is an enormous generalization and there are all shades in between of course.
That's where having an agent, or someone in the business at least, to consult is so helpful as well. Mine took my work to the people he knew would be interested, which happens to be children’s book publishers. It's also one of the bigger marketplaces requiring the greater proportion of artwork produced.